Friday, May 27, 2016

42 grams

A Chicago food writer made a comment about the Chicago food scene and Michelin Stars and said that with few exceptions, Chicago is a One Star town and that is what most restaurants should aspire to because Chicago is very relaxed about their dining and as the number of stars goes up, so does the formality.  While I would agree with this in many cases, there are notable exceptions.    Alinea and Grace are both Three Star restaurants, but they are also both very formal.  42 grams, which I went to recently, is a small BYOB (18 seats total) with a tasting menu with two seatings a night.  The first seating is at the Chef's Counter, which overlooks the open kitchen and has eight seats.  The second seating is at a communal table seating 10.
I chose the counter because I always like to watch what is going on in the kitchen.  I was seated at one corner, which was ideal because I was also sitting next to the staging area and was able to watch what would be coming out next and how it was plated.  With 18 seats, it was a very intimate setting to the point that there are only four people that work there, Chef Jake Bickelhaupt, his assistant, whose name has escaped me, Chef Jake's wife, Alexa Welsh, who runs the front of the house as hostess and server, and a 4th employee who works as a busser and dishwasher.  Aside from the counter and table, the room was fairly spartan with one major wall hanging consisting of wine corks.  As 42 grams is a BYOB and I was by myself, I didn't want to bring a bottle of wine because I wanted to be able to bike home so I brought a Belgian-Style Sour Ale from Une Anee called Le Seul V which was flavored with Kiwifruit.  While I didn't know what the menu was going to be beforehand, I figured that a fruity sour ale would go well with many things that might be served in the spring.  For the most part, this was the case.

Our first course was served on what looked like a pewter oyster shell.  The dish did feature an oyster so it was appropriate.  The Golden Nugget Oyster sat on top of a Sweet Corn Panna Cotta and a slice of Speck.  It was framed with the leaves of a plant called Oysterleaf (which is named such because it tastes of oyster) and crowned with fried Cornsilk.  It was small enough to be eaten in one bite which was how it supposed to be eaten.  Despite the small size, it had a wealth of textures and flavors and was a great start.

Dinner proceeded with another seafood course which was served in a bowl similar to a ramen bowl, deep with concave sides.  In the bottom was a Gyokuro (a green tea grown under shaded conditions) Gelee with Tofu, Carabinero Shrimp (with Head Foam), Finger Lime, and Rice Noodles flavored with Phytoplankton.  Looking at the dish left many people wondering how to eat this.  The noodles were light and crisp and couldn't really easily be separated from one another.  We were instructed to use the back of the spoon that we were given to eat the dish with to crush the noodles into the dish and to mix everything together.  It had a very saline flavor from the noodles and the shrimp (which was cooked perfectly) with some creaminess and a light green tea finish.
The next course was one of the most beautiful courses that we were served.  It started with thinly sliced Hamachi served with with Tom Kha (Chicken Coconut Soup), Dulse (Red Algae or Sea Lettuce, which was fried), Cucumber Blooms, and Radishes.  The hamchi was tender and delicate, which went well with the textures of the flowers and the flavor of the soup.  The dulse provided a little crispness to the dish.
The last of the seafood courses finished with Mussels which were served with Curry, Cauliflower, and Wild Fennel Foam.  This was one of my favorite dishes and I am generally not a huge fan of mussels.  It had a multitude of colors, flavors and textures.  The mussels sat in the curry broth which was thick, creamy and very flavorful and went well with the multicolored cauliflower.  The wild fennel foam was surprisingly flavorful and also went well with the curry as well.
The first of the meat courses was not something I would have expected, Lamb Neck.  It was braised so it was very tender and was served with Fermented Lily Puree, Fried Enoki Mushrooms, Cara Cara Orange, Carrot, and a Dandelion Green to provide some bitterness.  Lamb has a bit of a strong flavor although I imagine it would be less so in the neck because a lot of the flavor of meat resides in the fat.  There was a definite strong flavor with the meat although it was moderated by the bright flavors of the vegetables and the bitterness of the dandelion.
From tender meat and a lot of brightness, we went to Thanksgiving.  It wasn't actually supposed to be a Thanksgiving dish, but that's what the flavors and spices reminded me of.  We were served Squab Breast with shredded Black Truffles, Ground Cherry, Caramelized Onions, Ancient Grains Porridge, and Sage.
If there is anything like a signature dish at 42 grams, it would be the next course, which has never left the menu.  It was a slice of A5 (highest grade) Miyazaki (breed of cattle) Wagyu Beef served with Baby Bok Choy, Umeboshi (Salted Asian Plum Sauce) and a line of white powder that turned out to be a mixture of Bone Marrow and Beef Tendon.  The meat was very tender and there was a lot of umami.  It was a very good dish, although for me, I would say it was only my third or fourth favorite (out of 11 courses).
There was one more meat course after the Wagyu that, while it was kind of a step back in formality, it was one of my favorite dishes.  It was Jamon Mangalica, a Hungarian Pig sent to be finished in Spain like Spanish Iberico served with very fresh Cheese, Flax Crisp, and Siberian Pineapple Jam.  We were given a spoon to eat this with and instructed to spoon the very soft cheese with some ham onto the flax crisp and eat it like cheese and crackers.  The crisp was very delicate, so the operation was to break off a piece of the crisp, spoon the cheese and ham with some jam onto the crisp and bite carefully to prevent it from shattering.  The cheese was very soft and tart, the ham was tender and flavorful, and the crisp was delicate.  It was fantastic in it's simplicity.
In a standard progression, there will be a palate cleanser between the savory courses and the desserts.  This is generally a tart sorbet.  In this case, the progression followed tradition, although it was very different in form and very creative.  It was simply called Tart and consisted of a very thin globe of White Chocolate fixed to a spoon with Honey, topped with a Pineapple Sage Flower, and filled with Calamansi Juice.  Because the shell was so thin and delicate, we were instructed to have it completely in our mouth before biting down because it would shatter and make a mess for the diners if they did not.  Despite having said this, there were still some people that kept their moth open or tried to bite into it and had the sour juice dribble down their lips.
Like the previous dish, Tart, our dessert was simply called Sweet. It consisted of a scoop of Aloe Vera Gelato with Miso Caramel, Oxalis (Red Clover), Dried Pears, on Ginger Carrot Cake.  It was sweet, but it was a lot more than just sweet.  The aloe vera added a floral flavor, the miso caramel brought some savoriness, and the ginger carrot cake added some spice.  It was complex and I really enjoyed it.
To finish things we had Coffee.  It was a special blend made by Sparrow Coffee called the 42 grams Blend and was served as a Cappuccino with Cardamom.  It was a nice looking cappuccino, but it wouldn't be a fine dining restaurant if there wasn't a twist.
The coffee was semi-solid, like pudding.  I didn't get a picture of our hostess turning it upside down, but I did take one of my own.  It was a nice cappuccino and the cardamom added a nice twist  9not to mention the creamy texture).

I really enjoyed my dinner here.  It was one of my favorite fine dining experiences.  I enjoyed the intimacy and Alexa explaining the dishes, not to mention the great flavors and textures.  After the dinner service was finished they actually took pictures with us.  It was a lot of fun and I would definitely do it again.  

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